WASHINGTON — Last week, as the House was approving an appropriations bill for the Commerce and Justice departments, the entire Oregon delegation voted for an amendment instructing the Justice Department not to impose its own enforcement policy on states where medical marijuana is legal.
It was a rare display of unity on a relatively close vote for the Oregon delegation. On many contested issues, the delegation’s sole Republican, Rep. Greg Walden of Hood River, finds himself opposed to his Democrat colleagues.
Although 172 Republicans opposed the amendment, 49 supported it, an indication medical marijuana may no longer be a hot-button issue. The amendment was introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., whose district includes Sunset Beach and Huntington Beach.
Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm said Walden remains steadfastly opposed to illegal drugs.
“(Walden) believes that federal law enforcement should focus on aggressively combating them. The Obama administration has made it clear they are not going to prosecute medical marijuana cases in states where it is legally prescribed, and the state of Oregon has legalized the purchase at dispensaries,” he said.
Walden respects Oregon’s right to do so, and believes that limited federal funds should be targeted toward fighting more dangerous illegal drugs where there’s not a conflict between state and federal law, Malcolm said.
Voters legalized medical marijuana in Oregon via Measure 67 in 1998, with 54.6 percent approval. Medical marijuana is now legal to some degree in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
Walden’s vote is not out of step with sentiment in his district, said Jim Moore, an assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
Support for medical marijuana is stronger among Democrats than Republicans, but support among Republicans is also strong, he said.
“It seems to cut across party lines. We don’t know the strength of that yet,” he said.
John Philo, chairman of the Deschutes County Republican Party, said for him, the issue was really Oregon’s right to choose how to regulate medical marijuana itself without interference from the federal government.
“The voters are the ones who really should decide here in the states,” he said. Public opinions on marijuana are shifting rapidly, and the federal government often doesn’t move quickly enough to reflect the will of the people, he said.
Crook County Republican Party Chairman Ken Taylor thinks Walden deserves kudos for his vote to keep the Department of Justice from imposing a top-down policy on medical marijuana.
“I think it’s probably an appropriate response to refer back to the states those things that really belong to them,” Taylor said. “It’s a much better option for the citizen, I think, than to have the federal government sticking its nose in every place.”
Both Philo and Taylor said that while they don’t object to obtaining marijuana with a doctor’s prescription, they didn’t support legalizing recreational use.
“I think the party would still reject the notion that marijuana should be legalized,” Taylor said.
In 2010, a national poll by the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans favored legalizing medical marijuana. That same poll found that only 41 percent of respondents favored legalizing possession of small amounts for recreational use.
Four years later, the landscape has shifted. In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use, while Oregon voters rejected legalization by a 46.75 to 53.25 percent margin.
Legalization for recreational pot use will likely be on Oregon’s ballot in November, and Moore and Philo expect it to pass. A recent survey by Oregon Public Broadcasting found 54 percent of respondents favored legalization, up from 43 percent in a 2012 poll.
While medical marijuana is legal statewide, the vast majority of Oregon’s 259 cities, including all in Central Oregon except Bend, have enacted moratoriums on opening dispensaries. By law, those bans expire next May.
“It’s clear that people feel that medical marijuana is the road to totally legalizing it, and people who sit on those councils are opposed to that,” said Moore. “At the local level, we’re finding many small towns and cities who are saying, ‘Put the brakes on; we have concerns about it as a law enforcement issues.’”
Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Dispensary Program has approved applications for 92 dispensaries, including nine in Bend.
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